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Differnt styles – Same goal

Greg Arbogast and Fran Tolan | Monday, November 24, 2008

Notre Dame’s leadership is special.

Just ask Ben Hansbrough. Who better than the sophomore transfer from Mississippi State to explain what makes the Irish team dynamic unique?

“Mississippi State did not have the leadership that Notre Dame has at all,” Hansbrough said. “The whole core is all about the team. Nobody’s individualized in any way. Just being around this group makes you feel like you’re welcome.”

A family-like atmosphere. That’s what’s described above by Hansbrough, and it’s the word senior co-captain Luke Zeller used to describe the culture that pervades the entire Notre Dame team.

This family-like atmosphere has multiple meanings for the Irish. It means that a culture of inclusion exists where each player feels comfortable and equally part of the team. It means that the leaders of the family know what the team is capable of, and they won’t allow each other to settle for anything less. As such, the Irish players constantly push each other to work harder and improve their flaws.

The Irish have leaders of this family-like atmosphere. Notre Dame’s senior quartet of captains – Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Zeller – each work to create this singular culture, but each goes about it in his own way.

And for Notre Dame, their strength lies in that diversity.

Kyle McAlarney:

The serious leader

This role was filled by Rob Kurz last year. So, it’s no wonder that coach Mike Brey has said the workaholic McAlarney sometimes gets the “Kurz face.”

McAlarney said he has made a conscious effort to play the part of the serious leader for Notre Dame.

“I think more than anything else on this team that is my role,” he said. “… I think the most important thing for me this year is to be a leader, to be a solid rock for these guys.”

Brey agrees. The Irish coach noted that his senior guard has developed into the true leader of the team and the one most responsible for getting his teammates to focus on the task at hand.

“He has been our best voice,” Brey said of McAlarney. “Just hearing Kyle talk this year it’s been his team, a lot of responsibility.”

McAlarney said his willingness to take that responsibility has developed steadily over the course of his Notre Dame career.

“Coming in as a freshman here was a really humbling experience … You really learn from the older guys,” he said. “My freshman year I kind of said to myself, ‘I’m going to learn, take a backseat and learn from the older guys and just wait my turn.”

Former Irish captains have had a profound effect on McAlarney in the past four years.

“Chris Quinn, Colin Falls, Rob Kurz – those guys really set a great example for me about how to lead a team and that’s what I’m trying to do this year,” McAlarney said.

When Notre Dame practice is about to start, McAlarney almost always has a ball in his hand. He said he hopes the eagerness to work on his game rubs off on the younger Irish players.

“Part of it is leading by example, being here early, doing your work every day, being professional about it,” he said. ” … Hopefully it filters down to these young guys. We have a great culture of work in this program, we have a lot of guys who work really hard.”

Perhaps none works harder than McAlarney, though. He said he spent much of the off-season trying to improve his defense.

“My defense right now, I feel has made the most improvement as far as just guarding the ball and being in good position,” McAlarney said. “I’m a senior here now so I understand how we kind of play defense and I’ve really become accustomed to that. That’s one thing that’s definitely improved in my game this year.”

Still, McAlarney’s serious leadership on and off the court might be just as important as his performance during games.

“I’m a senior, veteran guard and I’ve watched when we’ve been successful is when it starts at the top – those guys just really leading the young guys,” he said. “I think that’s my role bigger than anything else with this team, so I take that very seriously.”

Zach Hillesland:

The relaxed leader

Serious would not be the first word used to describe Zach Hillesland.

If McAlarney says the things needed to get the guys to focus, Hillesland says the things needed to get guys to relax.

Part of Notre Dame’s family-like atmosphere is a light-hearted culture in which every member on the team feels comfortable joking around with each other, and nobody is more important to that particular culture than Hillesland.

“I think so,” HIllesland said when asked if he’s lead jokester on the team. “[My teammates] would describe me as unique. There aren’t too many topics that are off-limits for me.”

Hillesland’s joking nature with his teammates is reflective of more than his personality on the team. It stems from his approach to life on and off the court.

“I don’t believe in getting too worked up about things,” Hillesland said. “Whether we’re playing an exhibition game or getting ready for a Big East Tournament game, I think my tone will be the same as far as keeping it light and just trying to go out there have fun and play our best.”

It’s an approach that Hillesland tries to instill in the rest of the team, believing it will help each member of the team play at his highest level.

“It all works towards having people feel comfortable out there and play their game,” Hillesland said. “You don’t want guys to get too worked up, too tense out there. You want guys to go out and play loosely and have a lot of fun, not be afraid to make mistakes. That helps everyone to go out and play their game.”

That’s not to say that Hillesland is all jokes all the time. While Hillesland doesn’t believe in being too serious, he certainly believes in honesty and saying what needs to be said, and Hillesland still manages to combine that honesty with his lighthearted personality.

A simple story about Hillesland and teammate Luke Harangody illustrates the point.

“After a game, ‘Gody will be like ‘Yeah I didn’t have too good of a game. I didn’t pass too well’, and I’ll be like ‘Yeah, you didn’t,'” Hillesland said. “I’m just being honest with him, and we move on from there.

“We always have a good laugh about it. He’ll be like ‘Come on man give me a boost.’ But you just got to keep it real, keep it honest.”

Ryan Ayers:

The teaching leader

Ayers brings a necessary complement to McAlarney’s down-to-business mentality and Hillesland’s joking nature – teaching.

If McAlarney gets the Irish to focus while Hillesland prevents Notre Dame from getting too wound up, Ayers ensures that the entire team learns in the process.

Having been in South Bend for three-plus years, Ayers has been through a wide range of experiences, from his freshman year when the Irish made the NIT to the bitter NCAA Tournament exits of the past two seasons.

He now feels his role is to pass that information on to the underclassmen.

“I think it just comes with experience,” Ayers said. “The more you have, the more you can tell, the more you can share with everybody. I’m the oldest guy on the team, so I feel I have a lot of knowledge to spread to the younger guys.

“It’s just from being here and learning from all the older guys. I’m trying to use what they taught me and tell the younger guys the same system and how we work here.”

But a teacher is only as effective as his students allow him to be. The students have to be open to what the teacher has to say, and that’s where Ayers believes he’s able to excel.

“I feel like I can reach out to anybody,” Ayers said. “I think guys feel comfortable coming and talking to me. I have a real good rapport with everybody on the team, and I take pride in that.”

Why is Ayers able to connect so effectively with his teammates? It comes back to his personality, which helps each teammate feel comfortable around him and open themselves up to Ayers’ advice.

“I’m very personable,” Ayers said. “I’m very friendly with everyone on the team. My style is being there to comfort them and also lead. I’m the guy that goes come to, talk to about the game, just someone they can easily lean on.”

Ayers has the ability to be a teacher for many of his teammates, but just as importantly for Notre Dame, it’s a role he’s ready to assume.

“I do feel much more comfortable because I am a senior this year,” Ayers said. “It’s just something that’s developed over time. It’s something you kind of work for and earn here.”

Luke Zeller:

The quiet leader

While the other three senior captains have no qualms about opening their mouths, Zeller prefers to lead by example.

“[I’m] quiet, lead by example, I don’t always say everything, but joke around every once in a while,” Zeller said.

Zeller said that, through his play, he has inherited a leadership role rather than seized it over the years. Still, he takes the label of captain seriously.

“Getting respect of the teammates over the years, I have the huge responsibility to take that and use it for the team, bring everybody together,” he said. “The other guys know that we’ve been through a lot, they know we’ve played a lot, understand the game, [have] done well. With our experience, I think they rely on us.”

And Zeller said that, even though he is quiet, he communicates well with the other three captains.

“We’re all very close, we’ve gone through a lot of stuff. Sometimes we can say one or two words and we’ll be able to say more than people say in a five-minute conversation, so that makes a huge difference,” he said.

Zeller’s eagerness to lead by example was evident in his career-high 18 points against USC Upstate last Sunday. He was taken out of the starting lineup due to the return of Hillesland -who had been injured during the exhibition season – but Brey said Zeller did not complain.

“I give Luke Zeller a lot of credit. I mean, he was like, ‘No problem, coach,'” Brey said.

And the coach said the performance was no surprise, given the way Zeller has been playing in practice.

“What he did [Sunday] – that’s how he’s been practicing,” Brey said. “… I think every shot he gets off is going in right now, that’s how well he’s played in practice. I’m shocked when he misses.”

But despite Zeller’s 6-for-9 shooting against USC Upstate, Brey said one of the biggest plays of the game was a charge Zeller took before Notre Dame took the lead for good.

“The charge he took, that came at a time we were trying to find ourselves a little bit defensively,” Brey said. “They were getting to us and he gets all the way back and takes that charge.”

Zeller said little things like that epitomize his leadership style.

“Just working hard, always showing up on time, coming early, staying late,” he said. “I just put in extra work whenever I can, getting in the gym late at night, shooting, working out, just trying [to get] guys caring about what’s going on.”

Advantages for the Irish

The Irish don’t have many flashy players who will be guaranteed exorbitant contracts and endorsement deals once they leave college. They don’t have anybody who generated mass hysteria when they announced where they would be playing college ball.

But what the Irish do have can be just as important. They have a team that genuinely likes each other and enjoys playing with one another. They have players who are committed to the idea of staying for four years and developing within the Notre Dame family. And they have four leaders who foster this family, and work tirelessly in their own way to bring the best out of each member.

“It really helps to be around guys that you like, guys that you fit in with, and that’s something you really can’t put a price on,” Hillesland said. “I think if you ask anyone on our team what their favorite thing about being at ND is, they’d say their teammates, and I think that’s a rarity in college basketball.”